God of the Garden

I hesitate to begin this sermon because I want to talk about the parable and gardening. And, frankly, I’ve gotten to know some of the gardeners in this parish. You all have some prolific gardens. I’ve seen the handiwork of our former parish administrator all over U City, and I know a number of you are involved in making U City bloom. I see your work in the garden beds in this parish, and as a relative novice, I’m nervous to talk about gardening. But Jesus was a carpenter who hung out with fishermen. Arguably, he didn’t know much about how plants grew (as may be evident to some of you from our Gospel), yet Jesus talked about gardening. Maybe there is some hope for this pastor. Like Jesus, I want to talk about gardening as a metaphor.

“A man plants a seed into the ground. He goes to sleep, wakes up, and it has sprouted.” As a novice gardener I think, “I wish.” I remember being a little kid, planting seeds, watering them, and then running back out to the garden every 10 minutes or so hoping to see my plants grow. Even today the only thing that seems to sprout up when I sleep are the invasive violets I have to weed out of my garden beds every morning. But for Jesus, this discussion of seeds and earth is a way of talking about the mystery of becoming who we are, our identity.

When people come to me asking for a new spiritual discipline. When they are frustrated by something in their life and want a new way to pray, I often say, “Go plant a garden.” Often these people seeking advice look at me like I am very strange, which I am, but I think planting a garden is very spiritual.

Planting a garden teaches us that the work of God is often slow. It takes time for the roots to grow. God’s work often takes a lot of indirect labor. We have to tend the soil to grow healthy gardens. We have to compost and watch out for bugs, and do all sorts of things that are not directly related to the little plants growing up. We have to work to create a healthy atmosphere to allow growth. See how much spirituality you can learn in the slow work of gardening?

I’m convinced that a lot of the gardening work of “spirituality” is really also work about In my opinion, which may not surprise you, people ought to go to church (or to mosque, or temple). I’m really not that picky. Heck, I’m okay if some people choose to go to a Presbyterian church. But we choose to participate in a religious community because it shapes us as people, it shapes how we grow.

In some sense, joining a faith community is about choosing the soil in which you will be planted. How will you be nurtured, fed, and watered? You may be thinking to yourself, that’s well and good Mike, but many people seem to be growing up just fine these days without setting roots in a community of faith. Our country is growing steadily less Christian, I’ll grant you. But I want to talk about the why?

I want to let you in on a hunch I have about those church shrinking statistics we keep seeing from the Pew Forum and others. I think part of the problem is that the soil of a lot of our church communities got toxic. Those of you who have farmed know about the dangers of “mono-cropping.” Basically, if you plant one kind of plant over and over for years and years, it goes well for awhile. The same field can grow great crops of corn for a few years, no problem. But if all you do is grow corn, eventually that plant depletes the resources and biodiversity of the soil. You can supplement with chemical pesticides and fertilizers for awhile, but eventually you lose crop yield because the ground and thus the plants are more susceptible to disease and decay.

Now, Jesus doesn’t warn against monocropping, because such a practice didn’t exist in his time. You grew plants together at Jesus’ time. Certain kinds of plants take certain nutrients out, and others replenish those nutrients. Diversity helps when you are gardening, it helps you build your soil.

I think part of our problem in the church is that our church has gotten far less diverse than our nation. Most of our churches are mono-cropping. That old saying that “the most segregated hour in America is Sunday morning remains true, in a lot of churches. Thank God here at Holy Communion, you all have been steadily desegregating this church since the 1960s.

I think part of our “irrelevance” is ethnic. There is one mainline denomination that hasn’t been shrinking. The American Baptists, the most progressive of the Baptist traditions has many similar social issue stands as The Episcopal Church, and they are growing. The difference: The American Baptists have been planting congregations for immigrant communities as fast as they have been closing Anglo congregations. The church grows when it embraces diversity. The church dies when it is segregated.

But it’s not just about the church. It’s bigger than that. We’ve seen, in recent months, the toxicity that grows when people have been segregated. Segregation may no longer be the law of the land, but in many communities we’re still pretty talented at segregating our society based on race. The images of that police officer violently breaking up a group of black teenagers gathered for a pool party last weekend continue to haunt me. I won’t try to name a reason for what happened, because the officer’s actions were entirely unreasonable. What I can say generally is this: when we structure our society to keep people apart based on race, we nurture some ugly behavior. I saw a similar ugliness in Ferguson last summer. As the clergy marched on the Monday after Michael Brown was killed, I watched a group of teenagers darting in and out of the marchers’ line as we walked down on Florissant. The teenagers were harassing an older woman. I thought, “if these kids had grown up in church, would they disrespect their elders that way?” When we do not grow up learning how much we need one another, the diseases of prejudice and disrespect can seep in more readily. We need diverse soil to grow strong.

As followers of Jesus, we need to choose our soil wisely. We need to look for healthy communities in which to take root. We need to find diverse ecosystems that can nurture us well. We need to decide what images and messages we choose to feed our souls. And as a church, we have to tend our soil. We need to pay attention to the environment we are creating, because we are forming souls.

Given this parable, I could also spend a great deal of time talking about the health of our planet. We’re tearing up not just the metaphorical soil of our society, but our actual soil as well. I am convinced that the two are linked. The New York Times this morning includes a preview of Pope Francis’ new encyclical linking poverty and environmental degradation.I believe the pope is right on this one. The poorest people tend to live in the most environmentally dangerous places in our cities. Asthma rates in East St. Louis are among the highest in the nation. I’m convinced that our God longs for us to work together to better take care of our communities, and to better take care of our planet.

We have some great gardeners in this parish. Just this week our first load of vegetable produce went down to our friends at the Trinity Food Pantry share with the hungry. I’ve overheard vestry members planning new plantings so that our flowerbeds can be a magnet for Monarch butterflies. We have some good gardeners, who definitely know more about soil ecology than I ever will. I think it is good to spend time in the garden, because it helps us know the mind of God.

I am convinced that our God delights in the biodiverse garden of our world. God is constantly working to cultivate us, to help us to grow. God longs for us to take better care of our soil, to take better care of one another, to take better care of our planet. I am convinced that God is actively working to cultivate us. God is here, amongst us. The work may seem slow, and dark, and mysterious, like whatever was happening in Jesus’ story as the man slept.

I am convinced that God’s kingdom is sprouting all over. I see it here in the rich community of Holy Communion. I see it in the steadily more blooming University City community. I see God’s kingdom shooting up here and there all over our world.

God invites us to join in, to plant ourselves in rich soil, and to help in the cultivation. Can we better open ourselves to learn from those our society calls “other?” Can we make decisions that will help build more biodiverse and biodynamic soil? Can we join in the repair of our societies and our ecosystems? I am convinced God longs for us to say yes, and to join God in the garden.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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